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When HR and Business Leaders Disagree

I could hear immediately from my client’s voice that she was bothered. As a sales director with a solid track record, she doesn’t often sound distressed, but she did this time. She was expected to participate in a new initiative her HR department was launching, but her boss was telling her not to bother. He just wanted her to focus on driving results, and didn’t want her to “distract herself” by complying with new requests from HR.

Good, responsible business decision-makers often have legitimate disagreements. But the way they handle those differences makes a significant difference to the stress levels and satisfaction of the people who report to them. And when conflicts occur over HR matters, employees can feel particularly uncomfortable. After all, who wants to be in the position of appearing to ignore the boss and spend time on non-essentials? On the other hand, if you displease HR, who do you go to later if you need help with a problem and can’t talk to your boss about it?

The Costs of Non-Alignment

Here’s the real risk: When business leaders and HR leaders are not aligned, people in the company can start to think it’s okay to ignore or deprioritize HR requests and policies. That may not look dangerous if it’s, say, a wellness initiative that employees don’t want to participate in, or there’s a community service campaign underway that’s not personally compelling.

But undercutting HR’s credibility always has the side effect of encouraging wrongdoers to get away with just a little bit more, whether they are bullies or harassers, are playing favorites for promotions and compensation, or are exposing the company to charges of misconduct or unlawful behavior. Belittling or trivializing HR’s contributions can eventually have an alarming impact on corporate culture, as well as on individual attitudes and interpersonal behavior.

So when business leaders suggest to staff that they don’t really have to comply, they’re actually undermining HR’s credibility and disparaging the role that HR plays as protector of employees and contributor to corporate life and success. Although this breach may not look like much when it first opens, it can widen quickly, so prompt action is important.

Bring Disagreements Out into the Open

In many cases, it may only be a miscommunication or set of false assumptions that needs to be corrected. Perhaps HR wasn’t clear enough about its goals and processes, or the payoff to the business. And that payoff may need to be explained explicitly to individual business leaders, who will be steering their team members towards or away from HR compliance. Depending on your position in the organization, here’s how you can think about the situation:

If you’re a team member, consider whether it’s possible to show your boss that the HR instructions don’t conflict with your work, and that you can do both. You shouldn’t have to sort this out for the seniors, but if you’re the only one who can see the path forward, don’t be afraid to take action. if you don’t believe in the HR initiative yourself, however, go see your HR business partner and ask them to sell it to you — and then possibly to your boss as well. If they’re savvy people, they will want you fully on board and will be happy to explain the merits. (And if your boss remains unmoved, you may need to ask your HR business partner to get your boss’s HR peer involved.)

If you’re a business leader, try to get agreement with full attention to your work needs before HR launches a new program, so you don’t have to be in the position of naysayer. Recognize that challenging HR by telling your staff “not to bother” is a passive-aggressive approach that will create cultural damage and eventually lead to trouble attracting and retaining the crucial, skilled staff you rely on to do the work of the business you prize so much.

If you’re an HR leader, don’t make any assumptions about acceptance before you launch a new endeavor, particularly one that is a drastic change or will require significant participation. Meet with significant and influential business leaders individually. Ask them directly, “Can you get behind this effort? Can I count on you to support it with your team?” At least you’ll get a better sense of whether they’re on board, or if you’ll need to do additional work to persuade them of the plan’s merits.

Just don’t let disagreements get swept under the carpet. Work to improve the new plan’s concepts, implementation, or communication. Get the CEO’s support if necessary. But don’t let good, solid managers be distracted by dissension among their seniors.

Onward and upward —

LK

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